Category Archives: communication

When Japanese people talk to each other, or why they come back to Ishigaki Island

‘So, where are you from?’ the bartender asked me at my first bar in Ishigaki Island (a western island in Okinawa prefecture).

‘I’m from Kanagawa,’ I said.

‘Hey, this guy’s from Kanagawa,’ the bartender said to one of the two customers – a guy and a girl – at the bar.

‘Really? Whereabouts?’ the guy said.

‘Isn’t that where there are a lot of seedy people?’ the girl said.

Before I knew it, everyone was in the conversation.


Similar things happened at the next bar. People talked to me and even shared food with me.

This came as a surprise to me. I’d never experienced this level of friendliness in Tokyo during my 20 years of living around there. I’d always thought that Japanese people simply didn’t talk to each other. The friendliest people I’d known in Tokyo were either not Japanese or were those who hung out with non-Japanese people. When it came to a purely Japanese environment, strangers didn’t talk to each other.


The next day, I ended up going out with three random Japanese people I’d just met.

How did it happen? I met a girl from Shiga prefecture at the first venue. She said she was going to another place where they also played live music. I went there with her, and she was meeting her friend from Osaka, who’d invited a guy from Shizuoka she had just met the day before.

After the show, the musician came to talk to us. He was called Toshiki. He was born and raised there and a very good singer.

‘Have you been here before?’ Toshiki said.

‘Yeah, I was hoping to see this musician, but apparently he was away. He should be back now,’ the Shiga girl said.

‘Oh, he’s actually my sensei. I didn’t know he was back,’ he said.

‘Really? Shouldn’t you be informed about that?’ the girl asked.

They bonded because of the people they both knew.

‘So, I haven’t asked your names have I?’ Toshiki said to us.

We told him our names. When he learnt the Osaka girl’s name, he said, ‘So you are that girl. I’ve heard a lot about you!’

‘Really? How come I’m that famous?’ the Osaka girl asked.

‘Well, I know these people and those people, and they all talk about you,’ he said.

‘I hope people are not saying bad things about me,’ she said.

They were networking.

‘Anyway, I should be going. I work as a bartender at a nearby bar,’ Toshiki said.

‘What bar?’ the Shizuoka guy asked.

‘It’s called Eden,’ Toshiki said.

‘I’d like to come sometime. Where’s that?’ the guy said.

‘It’s just around the corner. You go to Ooritouri and it’s on the left,’ Toshiki said. Then he left.


When we entered Eden, Toshiki was genuinely surprised.

‘Wow, you guys actually came! I didn’t think you were… Well, come and have a seat! What would you like to drink?’ he said.

We weren’t sure what to drink.

‘How about a bottle of Awamori (Okinawan spirit)? The listed price is 3,000 yen (about $30) but I can make it 2,000 yen for you,’ he said.

Then he joined us. We talked, played darts and sang karaoke together.

‘I’m supposed to be working but this doesn’t feel like work at all! I’m just having fun,’ he said.


Most of the Japanese people I met on Ishigaki Island had already been there several times. They kept coming back. Some of them were thinking of living there or already lived there.

Before, I didn’t understand why so many people were in love with that island, but I understand now. It’s not just breathtaking beaches and coral reefs. It’s also the connection with people. Once you visit the island, you make a lot of friends. Next time you go there, you know you will see them again. I think this kind of relationship is hard to find in Tokyo or other major cities in Japan.


On my way back to Tokyo, I was already thinking that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to come back to Ishigaki Island.

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When to Use Keigo (Honorific Speech): Hierarchy in Japanese Society

Have you ever been unsure whether you should use keigo (honorific speech) or not in Japan? I have. Growing up in Japan, I’ve always faced the uncertainty of speaking keigo. If you are a fluent Japanese speaker or serious Japanese learner, I think you will be able to relate to my experience.

* I will refer to casual speech as tamego (タメ語) in this article although tameguchi (タメ口) seems to be more common.

How the Japanese learn keigo

Happy days

In the beginning, everyone is equal. In kindergarten and elementary school (1st to 6th grades) you don’t worry about keigo. You speak ‘normally’ with other children regardless of your grade. When I was six, I lived in an apartment building where there were many elementary school kids. Some of them were younger and some older. I never used keigo with them.

As far as I remember, children don’t use keigo with grown-ups either. I spoke tamego with my friends’ parents as well. You can even address your teachers without keigo. You may think that teachers are well-respected in Asian cultures and that’s certainly true to some extent, but teacher-student relationships in Japan can be quite casual (including in universities, although you will definitely use keigo with professors).

Still, you might use keigo with strangers or perhaps your distant relatives. When it happens, your parents guide you through it. Keigo is not easy for children so even if you make mistakes, adults are forgiving. Some kids won’t use keigo unless their parents explicitly tell them to.

When you are a kid, everything is simple.

Wake up call

Things are not quite the same once you enter Japanese junior high school (7th to 9th grades); you are introduced to the Japanese hierarchy.

You will notice some changes. All the older kids you used to play with start acting differently. They are now considered senpai (elder ones) and are entitled to be respected. You are suddenly uncomfortable talking to them. Something is wrong. You are supposed to use keigo with them from now on.

The change is so drastic that it’s funny. I used to take care of kids in some extracurricular activities. They spoke tamego with me up to the 6th grade but as soon as they were in junior high school, they started to speak keigo. I didn’t ask them to do so. I would actually have preferred it if they had continued speaking tamego. But they felt they had to speak keigo. In fact, some of them took pride in doing so. For them, speaking keigo was a sign of adulthood.

The senpai-kohai system in junior high school is quite strict. Some people abuse the power. It’s not unusual for a senpai to ask a kohai (younger one) to do menial tasks. For example, your senpai might ask you to buy a drink for him from a vending machine. This is called pashiri (パシリ). You don’t want to be a pashiri. It’s demeaning.

Some are unhappy with this hierarchical relationship. I would often hear kids say, ‘Why do senpai act so arrogantly as if they are superior human beings? They are just one year older than us. That’s not much different.’ Well, too bad for them; once you enter the hierarchy, there’s no going back.

And so it goes.


You will pretty much be using keigo throughout the rest of your life except with your close friends. The innocent days are over. Now you will face uncertain situations where you don’t know whether use keigo or not. Welcome to adulthood in Japan.

When to use keigo

Basic rules

The basic rule is simple: use keigo for older people. Have you noticed that Japanese people ask your age within a minute of meeting? That’s because they need to figure out whether you are older than them or not. If you are older, they will keep using keigo; if not, they might drop it.


The rule for the workplace is quite easy: always use keigo. As long as you stick with keigo, you are safe. With your boss, subordinates, clients, other colleagues, using keigo is almost always appropriate. This is especially true if you are new to the company. Use keigo regardless of your position until you figure out the company’s hierarchy. When you are not considered new there anymore, you might explore other possibilities.

Exceptions: traditional Japanese company

If you are a new graduate and newly hired, you will use tamego with other new graduates. This rule usually applies to traditional, large Japanese companies that only hire new graduates once a year. If you go to this kind of company, you are likely to go through some kind of training programme with other newcomers where you build tight relationships with them.

Traditional Japanese companies are a lot like school: you have equal relationships only with people in the same year. With them, you use tamego; with people more senior (senpai), you will use keigo; with newer people (kohai) you will use tamego but they will use keigo with you, so the relationship is not equal.

Exception: smaller companies

Things are different in smaller companies as they tend to hire experienced people throughout the year. These companies have their own unique cultures and hierarchy. Some companies might be very strict like the traditional ones but others are much more relaxed.

In my company for example, people tend to speak keigo with each other regardless of their positions. Some people use tamego to newer people but it’s entirely up to them. As for me, I almost always use keigo except with four people (out of 50). Obviously, I used keigo with them initially, but as we went to lunch and sang karaoke together many times, I dropped it and they followed. The interesting thing is that most of them are actually older than I am. On the other hand, they are newer. My analysis is that since I’m younger, they are comfortable using tamego with me and since they are newer, I’m comfortable as well. It also should be noted that their personalities are very frank. They are not the most traditional Japanese people either; coincidentally, they speak above average English for the Japanese.

Workplace warning

Mind you, just because you get close to somebody at work it doesn’t mean that you can drop keigo. Many people keep using keigo even if they become friends. This is rather remarkable because friendships in the workplace occur quite often in Japan.

On the other hand, if you date somebody from work, you are most likely to drop keigo. But then, many couples keep using keigo at work to keep it professional. They also might want to keep it private from their co-workers. If you want to know more about this, take a look at my article about Japanese office love (


Parties are where the real trouble begins. Let’s define a party as a gathering of people who don’t necessarily know each other beforehand (so I’m excluding office parties and parties with your close friends here). International meet-up events or your friends’ semi-public birthday parties are good examples. These parties are so out of the traditional Japanese context that you don’t know what kind of Japanese you are supposed to speak.

Remember the general rule: use keigo when the other person is older. This is the polite and correct way. However, in the modern Japanese context, using keigo isn’t always appropriate. It can also create a distance and you can be seen as cold if it’s a casual party and people are there to have fun. Imagine a party in a casual bar or club. In this setting, speaking keigo can be seen as uptight or even pretentious. Keigo reminds you of the traditional hierarchy which young, edgy people might not be fond of.

Sometimes, using tamego with older people is more appropriate. But the question is this: how do you know? This is a difficult task. Can you just ask him? Well, it can be awkward and rude. Can you just assume? You also risk being rude. You have to figure it out yourself in some way, but in order to decide, you have to talk to him first, which means you have to choose whether to use keigo, or tamego.

This is where your dilemma lies.

For this reason, getting to know Japanese people at a party has always been tricky for me. It takes me a while to be comfortable talking to Japanese people (or people who speak fluent Japanese). I need time to establish the social context; I need to know what kind of person he is, his social and educational background and age.

Gender effects

This is an interesting observation of myself: I have less trouble talking to random Japanese women than men. In a casual setting, I tend to just use tamego with Japanese women even if they are older and it makes things a whole lot easier. Also, younger women always figure out that it’s OK to use tamego with me even if I don’t explicitly say so. I’m not sure why I can do this. Maybe it’s because women tend to be less hierarchical. I could speculate that women put more weight on personal relationships than social hierarchy.

This also seems to apply to non-Japanese people speaking Japanese. It seems that whenever they speak Japanese, my brain automatically tries to put then in a Japanese context. So when they are men, I have the same difficulty but when they are women, I can just use tamego (unless they are exceedingly polite).

This is a very personal experience of mine so I’m not sure if other people experience similar things. If you have an opinion, please let me know.

Family relationships

You can freely use tamego with your family unless you live in an ultra-traditional patriarchal family. I’ve seen Japanese historical dramas where people speak keigo with their fathers, but I don’t think those families are common today. I’ve been using tamego with my parents and brother since I started to speak.

There’s one situation where I get uncomfortable: texting. I always feel awkward texting my family. Perhaps it’s because texting is still quite new for me. It wasn’t until my mid 20s that I got a mobile phone, and before that I rarely wrote to my family.

Also, talking to my grandmother is very awkward for me. I didn’t talk to her much when I was a child and now, I just don’t know how to speak to her. It feels too polite to use keigo but too casual to use tamego. One possible reason is that she speaks the Hiroshima dialect which I used to speak but don’t anymore. If I hadn’t forgotten the Hiroshima dialect, maybe it would be easier to talk to her.

In public

Use keigo when you order something in a restaurant. This might be different in other regions (I live in Kanto), but here, speaking keigo is the norm unless you are a regular and know the staff well. You might see some old people use tamego with waitresses (my father does that sometimes), but I consider that an exception.

If you work at a restaurant, you are most definitely expected to use keigo with customers.

I’ve heard that in 109 (a young women’s clothing store complex in Shibuay, also known as a mecca of gyal style fashion) the staff tend to use tamego with their customers who are usually young girls. This is seen positively and it also gives them a sense of belonging: using tamego means that they belong to the same group and they are friends. This is a very good example of how using keigo and tamego can have different effects in different contexts.


Being highly individualistic and egalitarian, I’m not very fond of keigo and the Japanese hierarchy . But that doesn’t mean I think keigo is bad in itself. On the contrary, I consider it to be part of the richness of Japanese culture. It’s just that living in that culture isn’t always easy.

Also, the rules I wrote in this article are based on my experience which is essentially biased. I’m sure that other people have different experiences from mine. So, if you have different rules, please share!

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Just Ask: An Important Lesson Learnt in India

I learnt an important life lesson when I was 18. I was in India for two months, and it was my very first travel experience completely by myself. I took an interest in India in my early teens, and when everyone was busy studying for the university entrance exams in the last semester of high school, I decided to go there.

There was one thing I wanted to do…

One of the reasons I wanted to go to India was that I liked Indian classical music (especially south Indian). I wanted to go to live concerts in India. But I was thinking of taking things a bit further; what if I check out music schools too? The way Indian people learn classical music seemed very interesting.

So before I went to India, I made a short list of music schools I might be able to visit. There wasn’t much information I could find but I could at least get a few addresses. Thank God there was already the Internet, although Google Maps hadn’t been invented yet.

First attempt

The school I wanted to visit was in Chenneai, a big city on the south east coast. A few days after I arrived there (where I had my 18th birthday), I decided to try a music school I looked up online. It was Friday and I assumed that the school was open.

I had to take trains to get there from where I was staying. Since the place wasn’t on the map I photocopied from a guide book, I had to buy a proper map in a local bookshop to locate the school. One good thing was that I wasn’t bad at reading maps. Without one, I was (and I still am) pretty clueless and I would end up in some random, unexpected place, but as long as I had the map, I could find my way around. I love the feeling when I find places I’ve never been to, just by reading maps. That’s probably why I enjoy travelling so much.

The school was a bit of a distance from the nearest station, and I was quite happy when I finally found it. However, it didn’t take long before the happiness turned into disappointment; apparently, the place was closed.

My first attempt had ended in failure.

Second attempt

I wasn’t giving up. Visiting the music school was important to me. There was no way I would go back to my country without taking a peek at Indian musical education.

I went back to the place the following Monday, three days later. I didn’t think that it would be open on Saturday and Sunday. I didn’t actually know when it would be open. All the information I had was the name of the school and the address. But I had the impression that the place was still operating.

And I was right. When I got there, I found the gate open.

As I tried to go through the gate, I noticed that there was a guard. I spoke to him to get the permission to enter.

“Excuse me, can I visit the school?” I said.

“Why?” said the guard.

“I am interested in south Indian music and I want to see the classes.”

“Well, you have to talk to the head-mistress.”

“Can I see her?”

“No, she’s not here today.”

“Then, when will she be back?”

“Tomorrow. Come again tomorrow.”


I nodded and left the place. I was getting closer.

Last attempt

When I got there on the following day, the same guard was there and he took me to the headmistress’s office. She was a (good-looking) Indian lady dressed in traditional clothes. When I entered the room, she calmly asked me why I was there.

“I came here because I am interested in south Indian music, and I wonder if I could see some of the classes in this school.”

“What kind of class are you interested in?” she asked.

“I’m interested in vocal classes.” I answered, hopefully.

“And why should I let you see my classes?” she challenged me.

I was slightly taken aback. Interestingly, it hadn’t occurred to me that she had absolutely no reason to let me visit her school. In fact, I could have already been kicked out by the guard. I was just a random – very random – Eastern Asian guy wandering into some remote music college in South India. I don’t think that was something that would happen everyday. I could have been some sort of bad person.

“I am just asking your favour…” I answered, rather weakly.

She reflected for a few seconds.

“OK then, I’ll let you do it,” she smiled.

The power of asking

It didn’t occur to me until much later in my life, but not everybody does the kind of thing I did. In fact, I wouldn’t have done it either if it had been in my own country. It might have been the unusualness of travelling in a foreign country and the passion for music that made me bolder than usual.

But, come to think about it, even if she had no obligation to let me visit her class, there was absolutely no reason why I couldn’t ask her a favour. And it actually worked. People are generally kind. You will never know what you can get just by asking.

Bonus 1 – the classroom

I think that what I saw in the classroom is worth sharing.

When I entered the classroom, my heart filled with joy; it was exactly the kind of scene I was expecting to see.

The teacher – the word ‘guru’ would be more suitable to describe him – was sitting at the back of the room, and about a dozen students were sitting around him. There were no chairs or tables in the room. All of the people were sitting on the floor, as traditional Indian musicians do. It looked more like a yoga class than a (Western) music class.

When the teacher sang a short passage, the students would follow. Sometimes the teacher did it slowly for the students, but it seemed like the students already knew the song fairly well. South Indian music is very complex to sing and I was impressed by how well the students managed the song. They turned out to be in their second year.

The teacher didn’t speak English but many of the students did, so I could communicate with them. Everyone was very friendly and curious to know who I was. I even exchanged e-mail addresses with one of them.

Bonus 2 – south Indian classical music

If you are not familiar with classical South Indian music (and I assume that most of you are not) this video will give you an idea. I know that it’s not exactly the kind of music a teenage boy will get crazy about. You can easily imagine how hard it was for me to share my taste in music with my peers in high school.

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